Baret Magarian– poet, literatus and piano’s player.
Le vesti acquee
Nel mare, sempre mutevole, che sempre ridefinisce la sua forma, i subacquei sentirono la vita palpitare attraverso i loro corpi, quando si tuffarono giù in quel vasto mondo in cui esisteva ogni tipo di vita, di luce e di colore. Quel mondo sottomarino era ricco e variegato quanto quello soprastante. In tre andavano e non avevano bisogno di parole, solo di gesti e segnali che tutti loro istintivamente capivano. Ogni cosa là sotto si faceva incorporea, si muoveva lenta, i subacquei erano come ombre, spogliati del volto, nascosti dietro maschere, la pelle nascosta dietro mute, la bocca celata dall’apparecchio per la respirazione, cilindri di ossigeno che rendevano la schiena bitorzoluta e arrotondata. La strana rifrazione della luce; onde di suono soffocate dalla gloria attutente dell’acqua e dallo spazio senza ostacoli. Banchi di pesci guizzavano qua e là, indisturbati dai tre subacquei, che li guardavano affascinati. Di tanto in tanto un pesce dalla sagoma bizzarra, un’apparizione affusolata, passava rotolando e ne seguivano due o tre, perfette repliche l’uno dell’altro, cloni, momenti ricorrenti; le loro forme diafane, distorte, spingevano i subacquei a pensare che il mare contenesse più misteri di qualsiasi altro regno terrestre. Le verità e i sentimenti che si trovavano laggiù non si potevano comunicare a nessuno che non vi fosse stato, in quello scuro abisso luminoso, in quell’astratto giardino sotto il mare.
Uno dei subacquei indicò una conchiglia rigonfia, seminascosta da un arboscello che emanava una luce flebile. L’arboscello sembrava rivestito di una sostanza fosforescente e il più alto del trio estrasse la conchiglia, che somigliava a un orecchio umano allungatosi con bizzarra plasticità. Sprofondava da lato a lato come un ponte di corda sovraccarico. La conchiglia fu prontamente collocata in una cassa sott’acqua dove prese posto insieme a un centinaio di altre simili eppure diverse. Più avanti quelle conchiglie, piccole, grandi, strane, intricate, sgargianti, comuni, sarebbero state incollate a formare mosaici, mosaici raffiguranti scene della mitologia greca. Le opere venivano esposte alla Mediterranean Art Gallery della cittadina di Caphos, sull’isola, e di solito attiravano un sacco di attenzione e di elogi. Giorgios, artista subacqueo e capo dei tre, aveva l’autorevolezza e la spinta di un ghepardo; aveva persino scritto un libro in cui illustrava in maniera dettagliata la sua passione per le conchiglie e per la loro trasformazione in dettagli di opere d’arte, assemblati in maniera meticolosa e amorevole. Gestiva anche una taverna con Dora, sua moglie e compagna di immersioni, che gli fluttuava vicino. Lei allungò una mano senza guanto per toccare la superficie epidermica della conchiglia. Sorrise dietro la maschera e la coppia eseguì una piccola danza di trionfo. Nel mentre Kirsten, che era la più giovane del trio, si sentiva un po’ in disparte. Loro, dopo tutto, erano legati da promesse coniugali e dall’attività dei lombi. Kirsten non aveva un rapporto del genere con un altro animo umano e diffidava delle persone. Solo nelle camere sott’acqua, nell’abbraccio carezzevole e silenzioso del mare, si sentiva davvero completa, davvero intera e pacificata. Lassù, nel mondo terrestre, nella conchiglia terrena di rumore e lotta la vita era pesante, e le persone non avevano senso, coi loro mutevoli schemi di comportamento, contraddittori, egoisti, e a volte assolutamente crudeli. I subacquei cominciarono a risalire, trascinandosi su come ombre allungate di uccelli diretti verso il cielo. Superarono larghe e corrugate foglie d’oro di macro alghe, che si muovevano lente su e giù come giganti ventagli di piume, palpitanti di vita. Mentre i subacquei salivano a spirale verso lo scintillante soffitto di luce, piccoli pesci a strisce verticali nere e gialle imitavano i loro movimenti arcuati, quasi a preparare un qualche mirabile omaggio alle loro controparti umane. Poi i pesci filarono via, lontano, sparendo nei luoghi segreti che soltanto loro sapevano come raggiungere.
I subacquei, uno a uno, sguisciarono su fino a raggiungere la loro piccola barca, e si arrampicarono di lato per mezzo di una scaletta metallica, togliendosi l’attrezzatura e l’apparecchio per la respirazione e sistemando il tutto a poppa. Il sole tramontava e l’aria era intrisa delle inebrianti, vivide sensazioni dell’estate. Il cielo lassù cominciava a sfumare in un bagliore rosso rosato. La luna era già visibile e Kirsten la spiava coi suoi occhi timidi, furtivi. Com’era diversa questa scena da quelle della sua infanzia e adolescenza, prima che arrivasse ad abbracciare la sua nuova vita mediterranea. Per lei una volta l’estate era un affare tiepido al massimo, in Inghilterra, dove le temperature non superavano mai i venti gradi e il cielo era il più delle volte uno schermo di nuvole e grigiore. Dov’erano in Inghilterra le persone con una bella abbronzatura, la figura miracolosamente ben proporzionata e l’eleganza e l’amore per la vita che avevano i greci? Sebbene non capisse le persone, quantomeno preferiva quelle vive e decise a godersi questo fatto. Preferiva questo sfondo più ricco, più lussureggiante, la sua luce sottile, che adesso moriva, ma per questo era ancora più bella e intensa, la superficie infinita del mare, in costante mutamento, in costante movimento, ma sempre foriera di calma e di gioia, il minuscolo punto panoramico che la barca offriva loro, e l’aria salmastra, che sembrava stringere tutte le fibre della vita nel suo abbraccio invisibile.
Cominciarono a tornare verso la riva, silenziosi e leggermente provati come erano di consueto dopo un’immersione.
Kirsten salutò la coppia e si incamminò verso il suo maggiolone Volkswagen, polveroso e ammaccato, parcheggiato nel vialetto sabbioso che conduceva alla spiaggia. La macchina aveva cocci ovunque, quasi le servisse come promemoria della sua mancanza di grazia ogniqualvolta si trovasse fuori dall’acqua. Da bambina accumulava sempre lividi e vesciche e sembrava avere l’arte di farsi male, picchiare la testa, sbucciarsi le ginocchia, scivolare e rompersi il polso, il fianco, il naso. Sott’acqua tutto era più leggero, l’attrito era privato del potere di ferire, il peso dissipato. Forse era per questo che amava le immersioni…
Tornò in macchina al paesino, dove alloggiava in una villa che i genitori della sua amica Melissa le avevano lasciato per qualche giorno. La villa conteneva mondi di grazia vecchio stile, colmi di eterei piaceri che soltanto a Kirsten (amava pensare lei) era permesso gustare. Da fuori la semplice bellezza del portone di legno blu indaco senza serratura, giusto un chiavistello, alludeva allettante alle dimensioni magiche di ciò che stava oltre la soglia. Il portone rimaneva senza serratura perché la gente del posto e il paesino tutto vivevano ancora in una dimensione di franchezza. A Caphos tutto rallentava, gli autobus erano in ritardo, il caffè veniva sorseggiato piuttosto che ingoiato, il souvlaki veniva cucinato lentamente, le ore passavano lente e non importava, perché o il sole o il mare o qualcosa assicurava che si potesse rinunciare alla risolutezza e andava bene non fare assolutamente nulla, eppure in un modo o nell’altro non era mai noioso né opprimente. Si poteva vivere la vita semplicemente osservando, meditando, essendo.
La villa era uno splendido dono per Kirsten e per tre giorni ne assaporò tutte le delizie, ne carpì i segreti, la vista magnifica sul paesino sottostante e le file e gli sciami delle luci della sera mentre si accendevano per magia, la stanza per la colazione e la cucina, con il suo acquaio stranamente moderno, un brunito e liscio blocco di eleganza, le piante incredibilmente opulente e i gerani e le buganvillee che innaffiava amorevole, la lunga vasca, quasi vittoriana, che era lunga il doppio di lei, il gazebo adiacente al corpo principale della villa e, suprema meraviglia, la piscina all’aperto in cui scivolava tutte le sere a mezzanotte, una piccola, squisita piscina la cui superficie era a malapena disturbata dai movimenti del suo nudo corpo flessuoso, mentre nuotava senza far rumore, afferrando avida quelle vesti acquee, e tirandole verso di sé. Si adoperava per diventare un tutt’uno con l’acqua, per muoversi in indefessi arabeschi, perfetti mentre ogni tocco, ogni bracciata che riusciva a compiere diventava via via una migliore incarnazione di tecnica ed eleganza. Lì, in quel santuario di mezzanotte, fuori, mentre galleggiava sul dorso, lo sguardo all’insù,
scrutava nel bacile del cielo notturno e le costellazioni e gli ammassi di stelle erano efelidi sul viso dell’universo. Eccola la perfezione che aveva sognato: una setosa, quasi erotica abbondanza d’acqua, il suo stesso profilo che si dissolveva, vi si scioglieva, quasi diventava acqua con tutta la sua libertà proteiforme, lo scenario naturale intorno, dove le pietre e i fiori esistevano in simbiotica, apnoica armonia, come se la realtà fosse diventata un’acquaforte e il cielo ghiacciato, immobile, il vuoto del silenzio assoluto, lontanissimi dal rumore e dalla gente. Nuotava con meraviglia e gratitudine mentre la notte si allungava a farle l’amore.
Un lembo selvaggio di costa con una spiaggetta.
Vicino alla riva mucchi di scogli formavano minuscole isole che catturavano la luce del sole; i bambini vi si arrampicavano, i genitori si allungavano su di loro. In lontananza, venendo via dal mare, un complesso di appartamenti nuovi, brutti, appena costruiti. Kirsten li odiava. Lontano lontano, a grande distanza, il relitto di una nave era incastonato nell’orizzonte. Un piroscafo turco con un carico di legname si era incagliato sugli scogli attorti qualcosa come quattordici anni prima e se ne stava lì, uno statico, rugginoso monolite d’acciaio e decadenza. I turisti lo avvistavano e si chiedevano perché fosse ancora lì giorno dopo giorno e non si spostasse mai finché qualcuno fece notare che non si sarebbe più mosso. Qualcosa teneva Kirsten avvinta al relitto e lei non smetteva mai di fissarlo quando era giù alla spiaggia, coi suoi ombrelloni di legno e i turisti britannici costolette di maiale e i russi plumbei, seri. Lo fissava per ore e a volte rabbrividiva mentre la sua forma scura diventava il simbolo del male puro. Un’immobile presenza malevola che, mentre le ombre della notte si radunavano, diventava ancora più scura ed evocava la dannazione. La perpetua stasi di questo enorme carbuncolo in decomposizione sembrava realmente creare un’incisione nel mare e scombussolarne le aggraziate pulsazioni e spezzarne la fluidità. Quando Kirsten guidava lungo la strada polverosa, che correva parallela alla spiaggia, ma in un punto sopraelevato, con lo sguardo cercava sempre il relitto. E quello non mancava mai di fare la sua comparsa, alla fine si faceva sempre vedere e in qualche modo era diventato parte del mare, persino mentre lo ossidava, un ibrido d’acciaio e acqua, preso in trappola dagli scogli con cui aveva iniziato a fondersi. Kirsten cominciò a sentire che in quel relitto si nascondeva il segreto della vita e nella sua mente si fece strada il pensiero che in qualche modo doveva affrontare quel relitto, trovarvisi faccia a faccia.
In una notte ventosa di luna quasi piena mise fuori la piccola barca e si lasciò trasportare sempre più dalla corrente verso il relitto, impaurita e incerta di ciò che vi avrebbe trovato, ma sapendo che affrontare la sua paura le avrebbe recato una sorta di pace. Una parte di lei si aspettava di vedere cadaveri ghignanti. Mentre si avvicinava all’orbita del relitto – perpetui spruzzi di schiuma intorno all’acciaio e agli scogli – fermò la barca a qualche metro di distanza, trattenuta, spaventata, ipnotizzata da quell’immensa, fredda forma morta, che torreggiava al di sopra di lei e della sua minuscola barca. Si sentì accapponare la pelle mentre un terrore senza nome la accerchiava. Si sedette congelata sul retro della barca, tentando di arrestare anche i più minimi movimenti del corpo, anche il respiro, gli occhi in cerca di un predatore che con un balzo sarebbe sbucato dall’oscurità per aggredirla. Il chiaro di luna catturava frammenti della membrana acquosa che la circondava, l’acqua era piena di cose insondabili, e un’oscura bellezza era nata. Avanzò lentamente e il suo orrore aumentò mentre le onde mugghiavano e si infrangevano senza posa nello scafo derelitto, come per tentare di ammaccarlo, e spettri bizzarri prendevano forma in quello scontro
tra acqua e metallo morto, bizzarri riverberi che attraversavano con passi corti e rapidi il corpo della nave. Kirsten era stata gettata in un mondo sonoro in cui rumori arcani, largamente amplificati, si succedevano veloci l’uno all’altro.
Sentì la pelle diventare fredda e umida. Scariche di adrenalina la percorrevano in ogni parte mentre tirava fuori la torcia e la puntava verso la nave. Lì, in quel fascio di luce intensa, riuscì a distinguere un grosso squarcio nel metallo e vi proiettò la torcia, e dentro fu svelato in parte un mondo freddo, abbandonato. Era come se il sipario di un teatro si fosse sollevato per non svelare nulla, un’illusione, dietro quella facciata c’era il mero vuoto, il mondo interno della nave era stato staccato e scavato da tempo come le interiora di un pesce sventrato. Rimaneva soltanto il terribile guscio dell’esterno, rinchiuso dentro la scogliosa matrice sottostante che lo aveva afferrato e non lo avrebbe liberato mai più. Avvicinò la barca, poi la avvicinò ancora di più finché non tremava per la violenza della corrente. Poi, quando il suo piccolo vascello toccava l’ampio fianco del piroscafo, si alzò e si diresse incerta verso il bordo, le ginocchia premute contro il fianco della barca, e allungò il collo e trapassò con entrambe le mani il grosso squarcio nello scafo. Le mani, poi le braccia, erano scivolate dall’altra parte, allora stese tutte le dita, poi posizionò l’orecchio contro il duro, freddo muro di metallo e si mise in ascolto. Le onde che sbattevano contro la nave le rimbombavano nei timpani; il rumore era amplificato, colossale, si tuffava in Kirsten con tentacoli annaspanti. Lei era inghiottita dal rumore riverberante, il rumore le comprimeva ogni singola fibra. Ne era impregnata, assordata, stordita. Era come se il suo corpo fosse un conduttore di energia, come se l’avessero attaccata alla corrente senza nome dell’universo e ora questa circolasse, le corruscasse dentro, attraverso le ossa, il cuore, le arterie, il cervello.
Cosa c’era dall’altra parte? Perché moriva dalla voglia di raggiungerlo, di toccarlo? Perché si stava inoltrando in questa folle esperienza? Cosa c’era là che cercava di toccare allungando le dita, le nocche bianche che le bruciavano dalla tensione? Forse quel giorno finale che si spegne nella notte senza alcuna speranza di un’alba redentrice (la sua mano che deterge gettata negli angoli del buio e delle tenebre, a sollevare entrambi mentre la luce purificatrice esilia ogni ombra). Forse era in cerca di un eterno imbrunire, un’eterna ombra, un cessare dei sensi. Voleva passare dall’altra parte, dire che aveva dimorato in quel vuoto laggiù, quel guscio, quella cavità, ma alla fine non poté più sopportarlo e allontanò l’orecchio dallo scafo e ritirò le braccia, semisorpresa che le mani vi fossero ancora attaccate, tremando forte, poi cadde pesantemente all’indietro sulla barca, che segava il mare con la risacca, e giacque allungata, in preda alla violenza del moto, incapace di muoversi o parlare o addirittura pensare. Semplicemente giaceva lì, mezzo morta, catturata in quel vortice, il mare era un groviglio di festoni e lei era sospesa lì, sbatacchiata nel suo inesauribile epicentro…
Ma finalmente riacquisì un briciolo di forza e si trascinò sulle mani e le ginocchia fino alla barra e accese il motore e cominciò a muoversi. In lontananza riuscì a distinguere puntini di luce sparpagliati lungo la costa e ne fu rincuorata. Risoluta fissò lo sguardo sulle luci mentre la barca procedeva vibrando. Guardandole, accovacciata laggiù sul ponte, le onde di terrore si abbassarono e lei si sentì al sicuro, quasi protetta.
Sentì che aveva fatto abbastanza adesso, poteva tornare indietro. Aveva dimostrato qualcosa, affrontato il terrore, il terrore non mappato del ventre molle della vita. Si meritava qualcosa da bere, qualcosa di forte. Stava per raggiungere la costa. Le arrivò un messaggino sul cellulare, il che era strano visto che non c’era segnale laggiù. Era Dora che le chiedeva se voleva fare un’immersione il giorno dopo. All’improvviso si sentì
di sapere qualcosa che la coppia perfetta non sapeva, di avere finalmente una storia tutta sua da raccontare, di essersi immersa più a fondo di loro stavolta. Poi, cacciando via questi pensieri, si ricordò della nuotata di mezzanotte alla villa che ancora la attendeva e questo le accese un fuoco dentro, le dette un senso di calore quasi fisico. Ormeggiò la barca.
Nella cabina indossò un paio di jeans e una camicetta trasparente color salmone. Dando un’occhiata alla sua immagine nello specchio pensò che aveva un’aria un po’ scossa e allampanata. Perciò si sciacquò il viso con l’acqua della bottiglia, si tamponò con un fazzoletto di carta, e si mise un rossetto scarlatto acceso, strofinandosi le labbra in maniera uniforme. Si pettinò i capelli con cura, quasi con amore. E notò che questi gesti, che di solito non le riuscivano facili e spesso finivano in un disastro, erano piuttosto piacevoli. Si guardò di nuovo e mormorò: “Non male, ma puoi fare di meglio”. Rovesciò il contenuto della borsetta e trovò una collana con un dente di squalo placcato in argento, la indossò e la sua bellezza raffinata, glaciale, era accentuata dall’impalpabilità della camicetta. Poi picchiettò un po’ di profumo su polsi e guance. Adesso era pronta.
Mentre camminava lungo la costa si accorse che continuava a respirare molto velocemente; ci stava impiegando tanto tempo a tornare alla normalità. A un certo punto sulla spiaggia trovò un baretto, annunciato da file di lanternine colorate, ordinò un ouzo, e cominciò a sentirsi piuttosto bene. Qualche vecchio greco non rasato giocava a backgammon, uno schermo televisivo gigante occupava un angolo brutto, dei bambini piccoli sguazzavano in una piscina. Due ragazzi sui vent’anni fumavano sigarette e chiacchieravano rilassati. Indossavano jeans strappati e avevano una splendida abbronzatura. Avevano entrambi un’aria colta, intelligente, sorseggiavano caffè greco e dividevano un piatto di baklava. Una situazione più lontana da quella in cui si era appena trovata era impossibile da immaginare. Si sentiva colma di una dolce spossatezza, che allo stesso tempo era la gioia residua scivolata tra le maglie di uno sforzo fisico e di una paura schiaccianti, e la vita era ineffabilmente dolce. I posti bellissimi, l’oceano che era suo, il futuro invitante con la promessa di piaceri non ancora gustati e la possibilità dell’amore, come un menu che le avevano appena portato, zeppo di piatti delicati, squisiti. In quel momento nulla avrebbe potuto renderla triste o contrariata.
Sarebbe andata a fare un’immersione con Dora e Giorgos l’indomani? Non ne era ancora certa. Si chiedeva se i due ragazzi – che adesso la stavano squadrando – potevano supporre ciò che aveva appena fatto. Non riuscivano a fare a meno di fissarla con interesse straordinariamente manifesto. Capivano che Kirsten in quel momento era leggera, che era gonfia di elio, era sul punto di sollevarsi, meravigliosamente imperturbabile. E quando dardeggiò un sorriso abbagliante in direzione di entrambi, rimasero spiazzati, non sapendo se provare imbarazzo o sentirsi incoraggiati o insicuri o affascinati, così finirono entrambi per provare tutto ciò. C’era qualcosa di esplosivo negli occhi di Kirsten in quel momento, un affetto malizioso per quei tipi, un amore inspiegabile nei loro confronti che era in totale contrasto con la loro condizione di perfetti sconosciuti, mentre li guardava e si faceva domande sul loro conto e concludeva che erano ragazzi limpidi, dolci, in totale soggezione di fronte a lei e ai suoi modi già nell’attimo in cui era capitato loro di incrociarla, e capiva che erano talmente in soggezione che non si sarebbero mai sognati di iniziare una conversazione o di venire da lei. Così ci pensò un po’ su, continuando a guardarli a distanza, e poi alla fine decise che toccava a lei, perciò tracannò l’ouzo che restava e camminò verso di loro a grandi passi quasi pigri e il modo in cui solcava l’impiantito era ardentemente provocante, il modo in cui faceva ondeggiare i fianchi e il sedere e disponeva le labbra a metà tra il broncio e il sorriso aperto, e poi sollevò una sedia e si sedette e disse morbida: “Ciao, mi chiamo Kirsten. Le mie mani poco fa erano dentro il relitto di una nave”.
(Traduzione di Elena Moncini)
The Opiate Eyes of the Buddha
It was early morning and the sun still possessed a kind of pristine luminesence that would gradually be diluted, as the shades of its novelty turned into a deeper, familiar hue: the golden canvas of perpetual summer stretching into the horizon. A handful of flotsam and jetsam tourists were walking near the shore – passengers who had somehow alighted at paradise, even though their original destination was purgatory. The beach was deserted apart from them, and the only thing that might indicate the presence of civilisation was a skeletal fishing boat that stood hinged like a gigantic misshappen bone in the sand. Beyond stretched a line of palm trees in a gracious arc, and beyond them there was only sky.
Two women in their early thirties were swimming far off, and their heads rose above the swell of the sea, which was pulsing with untamed energy. Gradually they began to make their way back towards land. Both were excellent swimmers so they knew how to harness the power of the waves rather than be hindered by them. They emerged, slender, glowing figures in the early morning light and flopped onto their towels, laid out beside two rucksacks. They didn’t speak and there was a sense that they were bound by some unspoken rule that dictated silence. One of the women searched inside her rucksack and pulled out a banana which she peeled quickly, passing a piece to the other, who took it without uttering a word, conveying her thanks with an evanescent, flirtatious smile. The latter pulled out a cowboy hat and set it squarely on her head, and the waves of her strawberry blond hair were tamed by its presence into something less unruly. Then she lit a cigarette and inhaled; the smoke poured out in an elegant whirl. Her companion turned to her and seemed to be taking her to task for smoking and her eyes were at once severe and mocking. They both stared at the ocean, which pulsed with tireless, perpetual motion. It was like the most perfect machine that had ever been constructed, never breaking down, never aging, and requiring neither fuel nor supervision for its smooth running. They stared for a little while more but then the sun’s brilliant glare became too intense so they closed their eyes and rested. The girl with the hat stubbed her cigarette out on a piece of cardboard that she habitually carried everywhere in order to record the number of cigarettes she had smoked and placed both the butt and the cardboard in a small transparent plastic bag. Then she pulled out a battered book entitled Mysteries of the Cosmos and placed it under her head in the manner of a makeshift pillow.
Overhead the sun had began to shed the skins of its birth and was emerging with a burnished ferocity. Another hour or so and an unprotected tourist would have succumbed to sun stroke in its glare. The clouds were being dispelled in its orbit rapidly and the girl in the cowboy hat was reminded of little ants running back and forth as they are subjected to the flame of a lighter. She reached out for her sun block and started applying it to her legs and stomach with subtle, circular movements. Her companion reached out and signalled for her to pass the cream, but she steadfastly refused to and pursed her lips insolently.
‘Katherine, please, let me have some of that sun stuff,’ she said.
‘All good things come to those who wait,’ Katherine replied.
Then, when she had finally extracted as much as she needed from the orange tube she passed it over.
‘Thank you, your highness. Did anyone ever tell you you are a princess? A spoiled princess?’
‘Many people told me I was a princess, and one person once told me that I was a princess who hailed from another, higher planet and had been forced to settled for this one for a while. My darling.’
‘That pretty much says it all.’
Katherine reached out to stroke her companion’s hair, which, like her own, was strawberry blond but reached down to her last vertebra and was now concealed behind her back, pressed between it and her beach towel.
‘Where did you get that cowboy hat again?’
‘Don’t you remember? I picked it up in Unawatuna, in that little shop with the scarfs and sarongs and all the other clutter. The guy was so nice, he had such a cool nose stud, diamond-fantastic, don’t tell me you don’t remember Katya?’
‘My brain’s fried from all the sun and moving around. And I’m still jet lagged.’
‘Somehow I shook off the plane pretty quick. Must be my biorythms or melatonin or some such thing.’
‘It’s wonderful here, isn’t it?’
‘Ok? Is that it?’
‘Ok is a lot in my book. Ok is the highest praise.’
She rolled onto her stomach and her supple, brown back caught Katja’s attention. Katherine’s tan was even and full and her body glowed with health. For a moment Katja envied her, her easy grace and confidence. Katja glanced down at her own calves and arms, pale and slightly chubby.
‘Actually, I find it a but ….a bit … I don’t know … scary here. No, not scary. That’s not the right word. It’s more sad.’
‘Sad? All this beauty? Really?’ Katja asked in surprise.
‘There’s a sadness about this beach. Ok, it’s beautiful, we get that it’s beautiful. But it’s crying out for some humanity to come and fill it, for some chaos and noise and a few beach bars and some hot dog stands and a couple of surfers. I don’t know.’
‘Why would you want to ruin it with all that garbage? It’s perfect as it is.’
‘Yeah, maybe, but it fills me with sadness and with fear. The beauty I see here is like the beauty of some virginal young girl who has never left her bedroom and will never make love. And she’ll just stay trapped there in her beautiful bubble with her beautiful trinchets and jewels but no one will ever get to see her wear them. It’s so sad this place. Let’s go.’
‘I don’t understand you, this is the kind of place most people dream of. This is the kind of beach that hasn’t been ruined by commerciality yet, it’s still undiscovered, a secret.’
‘I can’t explain it, I just feel this immense sadness and something else.’
‘Something like nausea.’
‘It feels like this place is cursed to me, like there’s this toxic energy emanating from here. An evil force. Maybe it’s the tsunami.’
‘You know, sometimes, I wish I had a less complicated sister. It can be exhausting to have to deal with all your flights of fancy and daydreams.’
‘I know, I know. It’s exhausting for me too, being me. I wish I was less sensitive to every mood, feeling, I wish I could just switch off my brain sometimes or slip into a coma for a while. Better still, spend a year dead. I just can’t seem to bear this sense that I am me all the time, that I have to always be me, that I am always stuck in this body, this mind, these limbs, this skin. Sometimes I feel like being me is like being forced to watch televsion all the time. Being me is like a television that I can’t switch off. Or I can’t get out of this house, this place, this place that is me, and I’m somehow barricaded inside myself. I’ve been in it all my life. You know what I mean? Maybe I’m like that beautiful princess – maybe this beach makes me sad because it forces me to confront myself. There’s no where here to hide. Right, big sis? You know me, always looking for the next quick fix, the next drug, the next distraction.’
Katja looked at her sister with a mixture of tenderness and concern. She was wild all right, as wild as a horse. And she needed a constant drip feed of compliments and tranquilizers. She reached out and very tenderly touched her shoulder.
Katherine stared at the sea, as if searching for a pattern or formula that would decode its meaning, peering into its ever changing reconfigurations.
‘Doesn’t it make you nervous, being here, so close to where the tsunami happened?’ she asked.
Katja said nothing. Katherine looked at the flesh of her arms, goosebumps had popped up along them like microscopic mushooms. The air was full of electrical charges and dissonance and unknowable energies. There was a silence trying to emerge, but it was always stymied by the angry crashing tide. Seconds moved past sluggishly, time slowed to a pulsation that held the potential for a thousand tragic abortions and eruptions; the natural world split into two parts, the serene everlasting sublime canvas that they saw and the undiluted terror behind it, which would garrot life once that canvas was ripped and torn down in the split seconds of calamity. At every moment, every instant Katherine was suffocatingly aware of the possibility of something happening, a disaster unfolding and that knowledge weighed her down, quickened her breathing, and pulled back her eyes in vigilance.
‘I mean, it gives me the creeps. It’s like I look at the sea, and instead of seeing the sea, this big flat slice of water and blue, I see terror, I see death waiting to flood in. As though at any moment it might happen again. This wave from hell could blow up out of nowhere and the water would be filled with fish, mud and dirt and wood all dragged along the shore, the feeble houses and shacks ground to pulp, the whole coast submerged in water, a new yet destroyed Atlantis in a newly created, ruinous sea and you’d have no choice but to go bats as you watch your entire life, history, all your memories being washed away. You get me, sister?’
‘You know, you should write it down, all the things you say. They’re diamond-brilliant. You’re this genius waiting to be discovered.’
‘Genius, smenius. I’m just peddling words, like a drug pusher peddles drugs. I would have made a great drug dealer, and an even better whore, lying on my back all day.’
‘Hey, don’t talk like that, I don’t like to think of you in that way.’
‘Let’s hit the road, sweetie. The sun’s doing my head in, I need a bit of shade. Let’s walk down to the road, and find a tuk tuk and head down to Tangalle. We could check in to a cool bay hotel, what do you think?’
‘Are you insane? Do you know how much those places cost?’
‘Listen, I can put it on my credit card. You know the score, I chalk up the bill, Maury cuts it down to size again.’
‘Your sugar daddy.’
‘No, my sugar cane daddy.’
They laughed. But the mentioning of Maury instantly made them both anxious, an anxiety which Katja now expressed.
‘When are you going to tell Maury? You know he should know some time.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think that he’ll take it very well.’
‘Can we change the subject?’
‘Let’s have a Mohito.’
‘At nine in the morning?’
‘You need to live a little more.’
‘I know, I know, I’m the dull, conservative one, and you’re the free spirit. God, how ghastly.’
Katherine smiled in that way she did, her lips circling the length of her face with serpentine, conspiratorial suggestiveness. She reached out her hand and touched her sister’s reassurirngly. They both stood up and gathered their things and began to walk towards the trees that circled the beach in lush, verdant abundance. Soon they were cutting a path through the tropical plants and leafs that swayed and moved in the breezes. Until they came to a mud road and began to walk down it, careful to avoid the holes and puddles of water rapidly shrinking in the sunlight. Lizards darted about them and they could see an old man approaching. They caught sight of his blood red tongue as he smiled inoffensively at them. ‘Has he got a bit of a vampire thing going on?’ said Katherine. Katja laughed. After an hour of hard walking they came to a main road, whose space was shared by slow moving oxen and bicyles and buses blaring on their horns to alert the other drivers to their lumbering presence. They spotted a tuk tuk and the driver immediately pulled over and began to negotiate the price. After they had agreed to his terms they jumped in and stuffed their rucksacks into a small corner of the tuk tuk, which was barely functional and yet charming. They set off and gradually gathered speed but beside the other juggernauts of the road the tuk tuk felt pitifully vulnerable but the wind and the open layout gave the whole thing a magical feeling that delighted them, so that it was as if they were at some kind of fun fair ride. Along the way they spotted a gigantic statue of the buddha in an opening between the ubiquitous trees and vegetation. His inscrutable, opiate eyes peered out at them. Katherine asked the driver to stop so that she could take a picture and his head rocked back and forth in easy undulations that signalled his acquiescence. She pulled out her Nikon and began to look through the lense and squeezed off a number of shots. As she did so, the little driver mumbled, ‘When tsunami come it go all the way to top of Buddha’s head, two hundred meteres, madam.’
‘Two hundred meters?’ said Katja.
‘Oh yes, water is level with Buddha’s head. All this area water.’
Katja said nothing and they both heard the mechanical whirr of the camera.
‘Are you a Buddhist?’
‘Really? That’s very interesting.’
‘Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Buddha, I think, Buddha was perfect man, I think. Near here is rock temple, if you like, I take you there. There you can see the Buddha inside. Very beautiful. Very high, you walk, you see all of nature. Inside there are four sleeping buddhas. We can go, you enjoy very much.’
Katja was beginning to warm to the driver whose manner, she began to realise, was cultivated and discreet. He smiled and bowed a lot and he often brought his hands together in a supplictory gesture.
‘Can we have your telephone number and we can call you?’
‘yes, madame, I can give you my number. I have, wait,’ and he began to write it down with exaggerated precision.
‘ can I ask you a question ?’ said Katherine, who had returned her camera to its case.
‘Why are Sri Lankans so nice? Is it because they are Buddhists?’
‘Maybe Madam. Yes because Buddhist they believe your actions in this life are deciding your next life, so we try to be good, try to be kind, so in next life we donot return in bad form, as elephant or as donkey.’
‘So it helps you to be kind?’
‘Helps, yes, Madam, helps because in the Buddhism, Buddha is teaching that all deeds, all bad things done by someone are returning to harm the people who does bad. So you see, we are knowing, is not just a moment, a small thing, but we are thinking of the whole of effect, across long time, across big space. Is more, sorry, Madam, for my English, I cannot say you properly, to explain.’
‘No, you speak very well. Please don’t worry.’
‘Madam, what is word to expess a very big space in English?’
‘Gigantic? Immense? Huge? …’
The tuk tuk driver seemed very thoughtful for a moment. He appeared to be studying the patterns of some juniper trees in the distance.
Katja said, ‘Cosmic?’
‘Yes, Madam! That is word! That is word! All that you do is both very very small and very very cosmic. Is all one level.’
‘Diamond-brilliant,’ said Katherine.
‘Diamond-fantastic,’ said Katja.
They smiled, unexpectedly impressed by the driver’s philosophical credentials and then they set off again, after the driver had tugged on what looked like an elongated handbrake but was in fact the ignition lever.
They staggered off and managed to overtake another tuk tuk which was obviously less speedy and powerful though this entailed almost getting squashed by an oncoming bus in the space between the three vehicles in a lane that was barely large enough for this manouevre. It was touch and go, or so they thought, as they diced with death, but the driver seemed to know what he was doing and treated each close shave with cavalier nonchalance. He did not indicate, but honked his horn instead. He honked it to alert others that he was about to overtake them, to tell others to make way, to signal a turn, in short the horn was employed a hundred times more frequently than on Western roads, but oddly it all seemed to hang together and work. The sisters began to grasp that there was nothing remotely aggressive or admonishing about the Sri Lankans’s use of the horn, it was purely functional and utilatarian. In the back seat the wind blew raucously and the window curtain fluttered like the remains of a tent after a violent storm. It was exhilarating and they both felt like happy children as they passed temples and stuppas, paddy fields brimful of water, a stopped salivating buffalo by the side of the road, avervedic shops and fishermen perched on long stilts planted into the coral reef, waiting with the patience of Job. At one point they heard Beethoven’s fur elise and Katja thought at first that it was the sound of someone’s mobile phone. She asked the driver what it was and if they could locate it. The driver told her that it was the sound of a bakery van which was advertising its presence and the sisters both asked if they could stop off and buy something from it. Within a very short time the tuk tuk driver took a detour into a mud lane that seemed to require all his ingenuity to drive down, as he twisted and turned past holes and dips and the little engine whined in protest, threatening to conk out. Then they made a couple of more turns and the driver, with a kind of clairvoyant intuition, had tracked down the bakery van which was parked in the middle of a dusty lane some 50 metres off, nearby shacks and a couple of shops selling sundry items and small bananas in clusters resembling acorns. Schoolboys and children were already congregated around the bakery van and the melody blared out incongreously from the small van. The sisters jumped out, elated and in their elation, quite forgot about their luggage and approached the bakery. Luckily for them the driver was too benevolent to think about stealing their bags and he sat and waited patiently for them as they surveyed the bakery’s wares. One or two of the children laughed at them and imitated their voices and words and one small girl daringly ran up to Katja and touched her fascinatingly pale hand, as though she wanted to make sure that she was real. Then she darted away before there was time for any rebuke. The sisters bought some buns and distributed a few among the children who beamed with pleasure and unselfconscious teethy smiles and laughter. The driver watched it all in understated amusement. They nibbled their buns and were on the point of walking back when from afar their eyes caught sight of a small procession heading their way. A newly married couple, supernaturally elegant, the bridegroom in a slender suit, his luxuriant hair slicked back so that it seemed to take on the texture of blackberry jam, and the bride bedecked in red jewels and a red nose stud and a red dress, shot through with gold, pearls pinned into her hair, were balanced together on an old, barely functioning bicycle but the picture, far from suggesting a dearth of means and wealth, embodied a kind of unmaterialistic joy as the sisters smiled at the joyful couple and their friends and the wedding guests who were accompanying, nurturing, protecting them in this affirmation of their new life together. They waved at this eccentric group and Katherine decided to approach the couple and offer them a bun, despite Katja’s initial reluctance, but they accepted it laughingly and she had the impression that this humble present was the final, accidental, icon of grace and happiness. The bridegroom broke the bun into two pieces and offered half to his new wife and they ate it together. Katherine at once felt that she was connected to other people, in this unexpected, unfamiliar setting, amongst people whose language she neither spoke nor whose religion she practised nor whose culture she understood, but connected nonetheless and she seeemed to see the whole of taught education that tells us to distinguish and erect barriers between ourselves and others come tumbling down like a house of cards in the perception of shared passions and joys and needs. They finally took their leave of the wedding party and made their way to their driver who seeemed to be more than happy to wait for them without even the remotest suggestion of irritation or impatience. As they climbed back in, only now realising that it had been foolish to leave their things there, their purses, passports, money, clothes, they both noted their driver’s impertubability and absolutely unconditional acceptance of what might have been construed as spolit behaviour. Maybe he had many problems or was bound down by poverty or hardship but it seeemed impossible to imagine that he would at any moment resent them for their lives of relative affluence and and lesiure. They found this nothing short of miraculous and as they moved off again waved triumphantly at the wedding party, seeming to see there in that little tableux a glimpse perhaps of childhood’s happiness when you cannot yet picture a world of enmity or a world governed by aggression or hostility or suffering.
After an hour or so of hard driving they came within sight of Tangalle, and the driver deposited them at the Jetwing Hotel. Katherine spoke easily and on friendly terms with the young receptionist as the driver waited again in his tuk tuk. When they learnt that the hotel had space they paid the driver and gave him a hefty tip, which he accepted graciously. Katherine had the impression that the extra ruppees were most welcome and the driver again placed his hands together in a supplicatory, endearing gesture, half prayer, half greeting, half farewell. As he yanked on the ignition lever, he turned to the sisters and said sweetly, ‘Don’t lose your smiles. Goodbye.’ They watched him go tenderly and deposited their luggage with an old porter with many teeth missing – when he opened his mouth it was like catching sight of an old castle with its battlements cast in shadow. He took their luggage happily and staggered off with it.
Katherine had already caught sight of the pool and she was itching to swim in it but Katja was motivated by hunger. They signed the register, smiled at the receptionist who was charming and incompetent in equal measure and then they entered their room, which was overpoweringly white and had a private balcony which looked onto the sea and a small enclave of rocks and palm trees. They both flopped onto the bed.
‘Gosh, the lap of luxury,’ said Katja and she started to take off her clothes. Katherine got up immediately and went out onto the terrace to monitor the sea and make sure that it wasn’t up to no good. She was thinking about the wedding party and the conversation with the Buddhist driver.
‘This view is to die for. Look at it, it’s … what’s the word? Flourescent. It’s like God had a puff of opium the day he decided to make this view. I wish we could stay here forever. Never have to leave. We could grow old here and be these famouus eccentric old ladies who had spent their entire lives at this hotel. Eating, sleeping, drinking, writing, swimming. Now, that would be a good life. What do you say Kat?’
‘I say you is crazy. But get it all down on your notepad. The old visions are priceless.’
‘Earlier, with the bakery, the wedding party, wasn’t it … wasn’t it special?’
‘Of course, it was very special.’
‘I had this … I had this kind of feeling … this intimation. Maybe I am starting to enjoy life after all. Maybe we aren’t all just pieces of seaweed floating through the mechanistic, unfeeling universe. Maybe there is something more. Or maybe God is just the geiger counter of man’s vanity and fear. Who the fuck knows? I don’t know anything. Ok. The universe. It exists. We know that. How the fuck did it get here? Take a look at this view Kat. It’s … there are no words.’
‘I need to rest a bit. I think I ate too much dahl for breakfast.’
‘What a fate, too much dahl.’
Katherine lit a cigarette and twirled with the smoke.
‘Ok, so we exist. The universe exists. Life evolved. Human beings evolved. A super sophisticated super refined machine with a soul. Or not if you are a Republican. Or a Scientologist. Or a journalist. Or most people. So there we have it. We come from stardust, we go back to it. We eat, we shit, we fuck, we die. Eating and fucking are the best bits by popular agreement. If you are lucky you are not born in a dictatorship, or where disease and poverty are rife. Or in a country run by fundamentalist fascists. Or in a country where women get stoned to death. Or in a country where if a man rapes you you have to marry that cunt. Or in Serbia. Or Albania. Or Turkey. Or any of those places. Ok. Then if you’re really lucky you are born into a middle class family without fucked-up parents. Without obvious perversions and a history of sex crimes. You have a reasonable face, a functioning brain. You don’t need a sex change. You are not blind. You are not a hermaphrodite. You possess the correct number of limbs. You get access to an education. You get a pretty good career going and it’s all going swimmingly. You squeeze out a couple of buns, or you shag a couple of chicks. You are lucky cause you don’t need to work in a sweat shop for Nike or Gap or Benetton, you don’t have to work for Foxconn where you can look forward to an early grave or suicide under inhuman conditions, you don’t have to work as an under age sex slave, you don’t have to suck Satan’s cock, you don’t have to get your legs blown off by some genoicidal American pyschopaths, you don’t have to have your face burnt off by acid courtesy of some disgruntled middle eastern nutcase husband with Allah on his side. And then – well, it’s all going swimmingly, you get older, fatter, you start to lose your looks, but you’ve got two brats to show for it, you start to feel the old body starting to sag and conk out. The blood pressure’s rising, the cellulite is biting into your ass, the cholosterol is getting high. You’re reaching the tipping point. It’s downhill from hereon in. Insomnia, depression, emptiness. Kids flee the nest. Husband starts getting off with someone younger. You scramble around for a bit of meaning. You try yoga, tantra, you read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, you buy Echart Tolle, you read the Dali Lama, you buy a new car, you get into DIY and watercolours. You try and pierce your nipple but it’s too painful. You volunteer to work in Africa, you sponsor a child, you do some nude modelling, you get a part in a video shoot, you internet date. You finally try anal sex. And it’s starting to look up again, but it’s the old slippery slope, the old slippery slope…. And then, then you decide to travel to Sri Lanka … and you get a room … in this hotel … and you look at this view … and you think … here I am at sixty two … or fifty two or whatever age it is … and this view is so perfect, so wonderful, so sublime that it makes you believe in something greater and bigger than yourself. The old ineffable. Inexplicable. Indefinable. But is that enough? Is that enough, that’s my question? That is the question, my old Kat.’
‘You think too much. You have to learn to switch off your mind, darling. You make it sound … you make it all sound so … so functional, so dry and lifeless, like a stale twiglet. Get over yourself.’
‘I just want … I just need … I need to know that the universe has some form, some order, isn’t just this cold place.’
‘It isn’t. Look around you, look at the Sri Lankans with their wonderful, innocent smiles and their kindness. Isn’t that enough for you? Doesn’t that give you comfort?’
‘It does, yeah, I guess. But it doesn’t beat a Mojito.’
‘Not for me.’
Katherine removed her cowboy hat and smiled, revealing pearly white teeth. She stubbed out her cigarette and said, practically sung, ‘I just can’t seem to find something real to grasp onto. No, no, no, ha ha ha.’
‘You need some chicken soup. We can have some later. Now I got to rest, sis.’
‘Yeah, I know, but you know, you’re right. I do make it too dry, I do reduce it. I shouldn’t do it. You remember when we went to that temple in Matara. You gave that little girl your teddy bear?’
‘Of course I remember. How could I not?’
They had ventured into the Buddhist temple to light candles, which had to be bathed in coconut oil in order for their wicks to burn properly. Katja had brought along the teddy bear, determined to give it away to a child, a child who had probably never had a real toy of her own. As they stood there, watching the locals who seeemed to be lost in prayer and meditation an old Sri Lankan lady had touched Katja lightly on the elbow and showed her how to light the candle. They were beside an immense sleeping Buddha in the parinirvana position, whose eyes were half closed and whose gigantic feet were larger than a small table. She was about to give her a few rupees by way of thanks but the Sri Lankan lady very gently shook her head and refused the offer. Then she rejoined her party – three other ladies and a small girl, perhaps four years old. Katja took one look at the child, with her huge brown eyes and jet black, silky curls and very quietly approached this little, serene, beautific group, barefoot and graceful. Katherine watched at a distance, her camera at the ready as ever. Katja, clutching the teddy bear, her whole demeanour designed to convey the total absence of hostility, reached out to the child and gave her the toy, which she immediately accepted. As the child held onto the white form — exuding a sense that she did not quite know how to hold it, as though everything needed to be held in a slightly different way, and that she hadn’t yet learnt the proper way to hold a teddy bear — the gathered ladies radiated a kind of quiet joy that enveloped both sisters in unmistakable love. And then the little girl’s face joined the movement of her chaperons and relatives and all four merged into one movement, one pulsation, a luminous happiness which both surpassed and discarded language.
‘It was a wonderful moment. But can you imagine trying to explain that to someone in New York? Or London? They just wouldn’t get it, would they? They would think you were out to lunch.’
‘Talking of which …. Let’s order a bit of rice and something.’
‘Didn’t you say that you had eaten too much dahl?’
‘But now I’m hungry again – all your ruminations, speeches, sophistry, they make my brain bloated and my tummy needy.’
‘So call room service, we may as well go the whole hog.’
Katja flipped over and grabbed the phone but after stabbing a few buttons realised the phone didn’t appear to be working. There was a moment of uncertainty and then she merely gave up the struggle. Then, as though the phone had divined their need, despite her not having managed to call through, started ringing and a thick, medlodious and at the same time slightly ridiculous voice came through from the other end and asked if everything was all right. Katja asked if they could order something to eat and that was that, and she put the receiver down, slightly bemused and puzzled.
‘How did that just happen? No phone, no line, and then they call back. It’s like they are all clairvoyants in this place, like they are keeping tabs on us, like they know what we are going to do before we know ourselves.’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean. I think they all speak among themselves and news of our presence oscillates through the sri lankan universe like particles hitting the screen in the double-slit experiment and before you know it we are making wave patterns and are in two places at once. Or they are in two places at once waiting to serve us, pick us up and eject us. Like that time we were at the reteat at Unawatuna and we asked the receptionist how long it took to get to Galle and he tells us and the next thing you know this disco tuk tuk driver with the fake Bose speakers and the Big in Japan gig is waiting for us down the lane, and just happens to bow his head in our direction and say, ‘Madame you looking for to go to Galle, I give good price.’ They are all in it together. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that show The Prisoner. Be seeing you!’
‘Half the time I don’t have the foggiest clue what you’re yapping on about but I just sit and smile politely, just to humour you, darling.’
‘Diamond-brilliant. But can you imagine what will happen to this place once they discover CCTV and all the rest of the sick oil slick of surveillance. It will be murder. Or maybe once all the gizmos and cameras and gunk arrive fully fledged they’ll all collectively decide to do away with it, or ignore it or cast it all on a bonfire to Buddha and realise that they are all better off with their sixth senses and hawk’s eyes and big nostrils and supernatural eyesight. And another form of chaos will just slip into place and mutate and take over. Like someone handed you a screwdriver and instead of screwing screws with it you end up using it as a cocktail stick. Or gives you a sarong and instead of wearing it you drape it over a sofa. Or they will dispense with all the tools just like they dispense with everything except the horn when they drive. Or they’ll take the CCTV and try to watch cricket on it, or the latest Bollywood betabuster. But then they’ll realise it has no reception and chuck it in the ocean with a few hoppers by way of funeral arrangements.’
Katja walked across and stepped onto the balcony – her body conveyed solidarity and inquisitiveness and resignation all at the same time and stroked her sister’s hair lovingly – she loved that about her sister – her brilliance wrapped in a cocoon of the urbane and the cynical. She was like a flower that bloomed at the oddest times. Together they lapsed into silence and watched the view. They waited and watched the sky as it convulsed with cosmic joy and delirium. When their lunch arrived it was forgotten as the cinema screen before them held them and they succumbed to its widescreen pyrotechnics and the day receded into a slow inactivity that was nonetheless life lived to the full, and they were like two sailors on a raft adrift in a slumberous ocean where dazzling vistas of time competed with half-glimpsed sights of the stars and the arc of the sky and a life of sensory acuteness which left the West and all its screaming materialism far behind.
Later, as the evening came, the round dome of the sun attained a perfect symmetry of form and intensity of even burnished colour before dipping with deceptive speed into the horizon. Until it was merely a sliver of orange peering out above the horizontal boundary. A second later it was gone, and shortly afterwards the sky commenced its paean to its departure and bars of reddish haze appeared until at last the whole sky became suffused in lush pinkish red that sounded, to whoever cared to listen, the death knoll of insignificance.
While Katja was having a nap Katherine walked downstairs to the hotel’s deserted pool, which was without doubt the most stylish swimming pool she had ever set eyes on. It was coolly mystical, with a deep resplendent blue that curved at the edge of the pool, with an effect that was dizzying so that its edge and the horizon blend seamlessly. As a result as she slowly swam towards the end and this horizon of blue and black horizon drew ever nearer she has the impression that she was inching toward the edge of the universe. It was intoxicating. Added to this the single swaying palm tree off in the right hand corner, the strong, haunting breeze and the ocean’s perpetual tireless music combined to take her breath away. And she felt she was being willingly sacrified on the altar of an experience that lay beyond words and beyond even life.
Shortly afterwards she got out and dried herself and was startled to find that she was being observed by a Sri Lankan man from some distance. Without understanding it, she instantly felt an aura of danger emanating from him as though she was standing close to a vat of sulphuric acid. He was exceptionally beautiful and dressed elegantly in a silver suit and smoked a fat cigar. She knew, from previous encounters with strange men, that the best line of defence would be to avoid all eye contact and move on swiftly, spiking absolutely any attempt on his part to engage her in conversation. But as she wrapped herself up in her towel and slipped through the glass doors she could feel his eyes on her back, prising open her compsoure. She fled up the stairs and looked down a spiral staircase. But he was gone.
As she reached the next floor she found that a Christmas Eve party was in full swing in the restaurant area which had been decked out with massive bouquets of flowers and exotic plants and microphones. Crashing music was threatening to dislodge the flowers and the guests were in full bacchanlian mode. A group of young men, six or seven young men with bare chests wearing complex metal jewellary danced a kind of tarantella and drums were hammered and horns or rather shells blared. It was like some kind of fertility ritual and felt quite powerful and pagan. She was so stunned that for a moment she just gaped and watched with her mouth open until a middle aged man with wiry glasses beckoned to her and she came forward.
‘Come, come, join Christmas party, you can come and watch, see, dance, eat, please come,’ he was babbling, but in her swimming suit and towel she felt utterly incongruous and undignified.
‘No, no, thanks. Or maybe later. I have to change my clothes.’
‘Yes, you change, you change, then come, you will enjoy, very good food, very nice, I introduce you.’
Katherine withdrew and rushed up to her room, opening the door carefully. Katja was awake and was nibbling on some sun dried tomatoes and the air was filled with an overpowering scent of rose oil.
‘I was reading Mysteries of the Cosmos. Do you realise that if you fell into a black hole you would dissolve into molecules?’
‘Come on sleepyhead, we’re going to party. Downstairs. Let’s get grooving.’
‘Really? Must we?’
‘Just for a bit. Time for a bit of hedonism. Maybe we can meet a couple of nice boys.’
‘Not for me, no meat, no coffee, no alcohol, and no pricks.’
‘You old maid. I’m going to teach you to dance. The Dance of Life. Get your skates on.’
‘Well, if you insist we could have a little bop.’
They started dressing and, despite her initial protestations, Katja grew quite enthusiastic and she slapped on a layer of lipstick and eyeliner and soon they were ready.
When they arrived the party had become more heated and raucous and they noticed a few British people, who were conspicuous on account of their pinky white skin and sunburnt arms. They were tucked away in a corner and were drinking beers. The locals were avoiding alcohol on the whole and Katherine noticed a singularly beautiful Sri Lankan woman who was surrounded by a few men and had the aura of a famous film star. A waiter brought the sisters some champagne and tried to engage in conversation with them but they were not responsive.
Then the man with the wiry glasses spotted the girls and trotted over.
‘Oh, I am so happy you decide to come. Very very nice. I am excited. May I ask please your good names?’
They told him and couldn’t restrain a couple of giggles.
‘And are you enjoying Sri Lanka?
They said they were, very much.
‘Sri Lankans very good people, very good cricket players. You are playing cricket?’
They told him they didn’t.
‘That is pity, but you can still learn to play. I teach you some words. You know leg before wicket is when the ball is hitting the leg, umpire is the judgement, stumps are the wood, cover drive is when the ball is hit hard, googly is funny ball, England used to have great team, now is not the same, I have been in England, many times, brother-in-law have pet shop in Guildford, I like English people, I not like football, football not gentleman game, cricket gentleman game, English tea good, but English food bad, you like Sri Lanka food? Very good curry here in hotel, hoppers good for breakfast, but maybe you are eating rice and curry also for lunch, but here not cleaning, food is good but sometimes not cleaning, I like beef curry, pancake with cocunut and banana juice, you know my friend Chana, very good cook, at Seagreen View guesthouse in Galle? Sri Lankan have very strong stomach, we can eat even petrol, we not mind, but tourist have to be careful, tourist have problem with food. Chana is at Galle. In the fort, you must go, beautiful Dutch fort, they have ayuvedic centres there, you have good massage, good for head, for mind, for body, they give good massage for body, afterwards very relax, my sister give good massage, you want that I make appointment, is not expensive, she has room near hotel, she make very nice massage, seven thousand rupees, is good price? You want go tomorrow? I take you, I have my own car, air condition, very nice.’
Katherine was laughing uncontrollably and Katja was smiling, grinning at their companion’s demented monologue. They were simultaneously annoyed and amused and could not bring themselves to ask him to leave or even to stop – so he just went on. Katja noticed a thickset man speaking heatedly with another, squat, burlish fellow, next to the dance floor. Behind them a few couples were twirling distractedly.
‘My wife is train in India, in Kerala, she train massage in school in Trivandrum. They have good ashrams there, but she not study ashram, she prefer to make own experience, but when tsunami come she lose her shop, everything, they are people, many they all go to sea to get fish, fish come up, fisherman think that they make much money to get all fish before they are gone in ocean, but is very sad because trunami come so they die, water take them, she lose everything, you want I take you tomorrow, or you want to see the Blowhole, or the stone temple, or we can go to the turtle watching, is near here we go on the beach to watch turtles, is very nice?’
The thickset man was getting angrier and more agitated and he shoved the squat fellow once or twice. He shoved him near his left shoulder blade, and the squat man winced and started speaking very rapidly and volubly and a few people nearby turned and watched in some alarm.
‘Turtles are shy though, they not always come out at night, and when we go, we must be very very quiet because they get scared. We sit on beach, like tonight, good night for turtles, you must pay conservation price, is not much three thousand rupees but I can maybe get you special price, then we go on beach, is very nice with stars and moon, we sit and wait for the turtles, sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t. My name Kellum, I take you there.’
The thickset man shoved the squat man again and the two girls watched as the squat man emptied his pockets and gave him some money, not much it seemed, and Katja could see that he was perspiring and looking quite scared by now. Clearly the thickset man was demanding money – obviously a debt that hadn’t been paid yet. Then the thickset man looked over to some other men in suits who until now had been on standby and now walked over menacingly. At this sight the squat man’s eyes tightened in fear. The other men waited and watched, but their bodies were taut and Katherine suddenly recognised one of them as being the man who had been watching her at the pool. The atmosphere of the party had altered and one of the Englishmen was walking over to see what was going on – he stepped between the squat man and the thickset man and it was clear that he was trying to deflect the tensions between the two. The squat man was speaking very very rapidly and his legs were trembling but by contrast the Englishman appeared calm and impassive. Even Kellum had picked up on the ensuing silence and disquiet and finally stopped talking and turned around in vulgar curiosity. A svelte woman in a red dress walked over to the Englishman and seemed to be urging him not to get involved and she grabbed his hand and tried to pull him away but the Englishman seemed to want to teach the thickset man something of a lesson. Katherine whispered to Katja, ‘I think this is probably time for us to take our leave, come on, we’ve out of here.’
But Katja didn’t reply, she was strangely compelled by the whole thing, the unreal theatricality of it. As she watched she felt disconnected at the same time, as though the whole thing was somehow being staged, was not quite real, like a televison broadcast or a movie. The Englishman held out his hand – a broad, firm hand and pressed it against the thickset man’s chest. The woman in red was pleading with the Englishman now, begging him not to get involved. The Englishman pushed his hand against his chest and forced him to withdraw a foot or two but as he did so something white flashed and Katherine screamed and the Englishman clutched his side, now flowing with blood. The other men moved forward and formed a circle around their boss so that no one could intervene. The Englishman had started to buckle as his girlfriend began screaming. The music abruptly ceased and the partygoers cried out in etched moments of horror. A glass shattered and someone at the back fainted. The thickset man turned to his lackeys and spoke rapidly for several moments and one of them picked up a bottle and smashed it and with its broken, jagged edge gashed the woman’s face. People tried to intervene but the men brandished guns and waved them in their frightened faces. The Englishman was on the floor, trying to crawl away but then the thickset man pulled out his own gun and shot him near his liver. Then one of the men tore off the girl’s clothes and started raping her as his companions stood there without the slightest flicker of emotion or feeling. She was bleeding from the head but he just went on raping her, out of control, like some amphetamine crazed ape, plugged into the mad live circuitry of annihilation, a force that would never relent. Then he forced her down onto the dance floor and carried on, her poor naked body was twitching under his bulk and her hair was knotted in congealed blood. The crowd was frantic, fleeing, running for the door, screaming, shouting angry cries in Sengalese and calling for the police but everyone was powerless to stop them. The sisters were shaking and had ghastly pale faces. They were caught between the desire to come to the woman’s aid and the instinct for self-preservation but finally Katherine came to some kind of resolution, realising that as the only foreign women there, they would be next on these sadists’ list, so she roused herself out of her stupor and frantically pulled Katja to her feet — she was on the point of collapse — and forced her to walk, holding onto her and dragging her away, like a swimmer who, herself half drowned, guides her even more stricken companion to shore. Katja, coming to her senses in Katherine’s arms, regained a little part of her strength and they staggered out of there, not daring to look back.
Katherine struggled with the key to their room but finally it opened up and they darted in. Katja lurched into the bathroom, dropped to her knees, and vomited into the toilet, mucus and saliva dripping from her. She knelt there, trying to steady herself, heaving and sobbing, unable to think or say anything. Katherine extracted some toilet paper and wiped her sister’s mouth. A minute passed and a faint tinge of colour returned to Katja’s cheeks and her shaking grew less violent. Katherine grabbed a small white towel and ran cold water all over it, squeezed it, and mopped her sister’s brow. Curls of hair were damp with sweat and clung all over her forehead in wild patterns. Her eyes were drained and her pupils dilated and terror still wrenched her face and soul into disfigured configurations. Katherine felt weak and scared and dazed but she forced herself to keep things together and she pressed her teeth violently to stop herself from crying and she grabbed a bottle of water, extracting it from her rucksack, and flooded a glass with it and very tenderly held out the glass to her sister’s lips and Katja sipped at the water and it felt good against her parched lips and her dry mouth and she managed to smile weakly and then she said, in a small, frightened voice, ‘… thank you.’
Leaving Katya there for a moment — she knew she would be all right if she could rest quietly for twenty minutes, but she knew that they didn’t have twenty minutes — Katherine darted into the bedroom and began stuffing all their clothes into the rucksacks. She grabbed a small plastic bag and dumped all their toiletries inside it as Katja looked up and watched, in awe of her sister’s strength and composure. Katherine’s speed was miraculous, she was so focused and concentrated but Katherine knew that this was partly because of the need to remain intact for her more emotional, more fragile younger sister, and her dynamicsm was like that of a general’s before his troops, showing them the way as he strategizes and negotiates a pathway through a dark forest.
‘What’s … what’s going on?’ Katja murmured.
‘We’re hitching a ride with the wind. We’re leaving. I’m not ready to get in the wooden box yet. Those fucks are capable of anything. And there’s no way we are going to sit around and wait for Sri Lankan cops to interrogate us for three days straight, which is what they would do, so let’s get out pronto and find ourselves some hotel far away from this hellotel. Katja, darling baby, you have to get to your feet, we have to leave now. Come on.’
She tenderly helped her up and clutched her arm and steadied her but she looked shaky and uncertain and didn’t seem to have the strength to speak. She made her drink some more water and then helped her to the balcony, kicking open the door and praying the breeze and air would revive her. Katja slumped onto the threshold between the room and the terrace. ‘I can’t. I’m too .. too weak…’
‘Listen to me. The longer we stay here, the deeper shit we’ll be getting into. We have to get out of here. You just have to get through the next forty minutes, then I promise you I’ll find you a bed and I’ll put you inside it and you can rest as long as you like. But now you have to be strong and brave and we have to go. Now.’
Katja listened to her sister and took it all in. She knew that she was right of course. They couldn’t stay, it was quite possible their lives were in danger. Who knew what was going on outside? Were the murderers now stabbing and shooting the other hotel guests? Had they surrounded the hotel? Were they preventing the other guests from leaving? She had never dreamed, until that night, that human beings could be so diabolical.
Katherine swung both and her sister’s rucksacks over her back and staggered a little under the weight of them until she found her balance and walked over to Katja. She commanded her to take some more water. Katja stared at her sister, overwhelmed suddenly by her love and by her care. She was looking at an extremely beautiful young woman filled with the resilence and mystery of the world and as she watched it was almost as though she was seeing her for the first time and at once she recoiled in fear at the thought of this woman being hurt or of her life being endangered in any way and the thought gave her strength and she felt life seeping back into her veins and arteries and she got to her feet.
They glanced around furtively. The reception area, which was deserted, was a series of fragmented trajectories of spilled blood and smashed glass. They could hear a tumult of voices in the distance but none of the mob seemed present. They moved quickly towards the exit and were on the point of reaching the steps outside when a guttural voice barked, ‘Where are you going? Come back. My gun is aimed at you.’ They froze, horror rising and lashing out like a demented sea, and turned around slowly. It was the man from the pool, the one who had been watching Katherine and she felt a violent rush of nausea. With a frantic effort of will she stemmed its tide and reached out to grab Katja’s hand and squeezed it tightly. They both stood there paralysed and petrified. Katherine looked into his eyes, but she could see nothing there, no light, no pity, not even anger, just two black cavities. She closed her eyes tightly and wished it would be over soon. The unendingness of time. Shadows and memories in a pre-natal blur. Centuries shrank into seconds and seconds dilated into centuries.
This is it this is the moment of our deaths.
Who would have thought it would end here in this hotel in Sri Lanka we won’t even have time to say goodbye to each other we won’t even have time to call our mum it’ll all happen in a moment in the blink of an eye and we’ll cease to be cease to be anything at all we’ll be a couple of dead bodies found at a scene of carnage and the English papers will say things like two young unidentified tourists were among the dead and we’ll exit this world never having learnt why we were put on it and we’ll depart this world like two dimwitted fools who wasted their lives and never never knew how to live until now when it’s too late and there is no more time and time has run out and life’s all used up just when we so badly want to live just when we are so in love with life and we’ll never see another sunset or tree or
Another man marched up to the first man and spoke unintelligibly and volubly in Singalese for several moments. He seemed to be berating the first man and then slapped him with extraordinary violence on the cheek. The first man was so flabbergasted that he just stood there like some dumb animal, but then, emerging from his shock, he struck the other with grinding force in the stomach and the latter instantly keeled over like a ninepin. The girls simply gaped, unable to react or move until finally Katherine, flooded by a kind of reserve energy that had been dragged up out of nowhere, stirred and pulled her sister and herself out of there and it felt as though they were both clawing along the narrow space under a train, scrambling over the tracks, beneath the train’s under belly, to reach freedom on the other side and as they emerged outside they broke into a run, and then ran with all their might, never thinking that their legs could carry them so swiftly through the pathway that meandered down to the main road outside the hotel and they kept on running into the night, feeling the mad adrenaline rush of life, the exhaltation of knowing they had cheated death and had walked a tightrobe spun from terror and horror, but now that walk was over and they no longer had to tread the tightrope, and consider the dizzying drop and abyss below, it had began to recede and life was glorious and they just kept on running, a sound of screeching trains in their ears, the brakes slammed on tight, the wheels howling and squealing and smoking as the great freight train comes to an agonised halt just in time to avoid killing the heroine tied to the rail tracks and she is spared just as they were spared and they looked back, their heads darting in terror to catch sight of the murderers giving chase, but they weren’t giving chase, and they were very nearly dead by now with the effort of this marathon in the middle of the night but they finally stopped when they thought it was safe to do so, at a distance, a long distance from the hotel, beside the main road where the traffic passed by as it always did and the cars passed by as they always did and the stars shone as they always did and the wind from the cars blew as it always did and then they saw a little tuk tuk approaching and they both hailed it and reached out their hands and danced and yelped and lept in the air and hollered and it stopped and they both felt they had never seen such a wonderful sight and they got into the tuk tuk and the driver looked at them in astonishment and they bundled in and Katherine said, ‘Take us away, away from here, we don’t care what the price is, just drive, quickly, now!,’ and he did as he was told, not daring to disagree and they saw that on the tuk tuk’s back seat, next to them was a ridiculously small frying pan and on the floor next to the back seat was a sword fish and at the sight of this they both burst into peals of laughter and they both felt that the fish and the frying pan were hilarious, wonderful, beautiful signs of life, of the life that had almost been snatched away from them and they said to the driver, ‘We like your fish, it is very very funny, very nice to see a fish,’ and the driver just smiled and joined in their laughter and anyone that might have been watching this little party of people squealing with laughter would have assumed they were either stoned or drunk or mental patients.
Eventually the laughter subsided and the girls looked at each other, dizzying currents of emotion scooting underneath, above, to the sides of them, snatches of whose essences they periodically caught, like fishermen struggling with fish too large to be brought to the water’s surface, as they pulled on the line but the fish fought free of the hooks, slipping into the depths, there where things dwelled that could not be named. Katherine asked the driver if he knew of any hotels where they might stay the night, but the driver was unsure as this was Christmas and all the hotels were probably full. Katherine turned to assess the state of her sister’s resilence and, to her surprise, found that their second encounter with violence had apparently been less traumatic than the first, and that she appeared to be more buoyant and energised than ever.
‘Katja … how are you feeling?’
‘I’m alive, that’s all that matters. Everything else is just a footnote, I’m alive, I’m with you, my darling darling sister, here, in this tuk-tuk, with the warm wind in my face, the warm night, with the thought of tomorrow, sunlight, the spices of spice shops, eating seer fish on the beach, coconut pancakes, Audrey Hepburn, hot baths, it’s all here again, we’re back, we’re alive.’ She started sobbing softly and Katherine cradled her in her arms. The driver was seriously alarmed.
‘What wrong? She ill? What I do? I stop? She need doctor?’
‘No, no, she’ll be fine, just take us to nearest hotel. Please.’
‘Where we go? Ganesh Garden? Mango Grove? Capahanas Beach?’
‘Anywhere. Just anywhere near here.’
‘Is twenty five minutes still madam.’
‘That’s fine, that’s ok.’
And now silence descended on the little group as the vehicle pushed on into the night, and daylight remained stubbornly distant and unimaginable. It was Christmas Day and Christmas had never seemed so irrelevant and unreal. They came to the first hotel the driver could find but it was fully booked and so were the next three places. Eventually Katherine, who took matters in hand while Katja dozed in the tuk tuk, spoke with a tall Sr Lankan and practically begged him to help them – though she was aware as she did so of the possibility of her vulnerability being exploited but she was too tired and exhausted and enervated to remember to put on the habitual armour she wore when dealing with men. Luckily the man was kind and he made a couple of phone calls and finally suggested that they try the Pastissade guesthouse on marakollia beach. There they might find a bed for the night.
So they set off on their increasingly desperate search and the driver had to stop at a petrol station to stock up on fuel and Katherine watched her sister who was by now fast asleep. The driver puffed on a cigarette and asked Katherine if she wanted a smoke and she gratefully accepted. As she smoked the events of the night flashed through her addled mind and they were at the same time more real and more unreal than ever. She couldn’t account for this and gave up trying to and just wished that the horror and trauma would soon be deleted courtesy of the merciful trick that the mind could play: selective memory developed over centuries in order to vouchsafe the emotional survival of the human race.
When they arrived at the place there was hardly any indication of its nature. Eventually a very spindly and youngish man appeared and the driver spoke with him for a few conspiratorial moments, alerting Katherine’s suspicions. The night was inpenetratable and only a small, bluish light burnt outside the guesthouse, the only indicator of the inhabibility of the place. As Katja slept she tried to gauge its wholesomeness – there was nothing but shrub and dark trees and sand and the hum of the ocean. Two adjoining bungalows compromised the most isolated guesthouse in Sri Lanka, as far as she could ascertain – the perfect target for any more homicidal maniacs who might be roaming. But the driver now informed her that one of the bungalows was free so she agreed, having no choice, and paid the driver. Very gently she woke Katja up and paid the driver. They were both sorry to see him go. The small, delicate hotelier/receptionist/bellboy grew a little more benevolent and friendly in Katherine’s eyes as they agreed to terms and Katherine scanned him up and down – he didn’t seem to present any threat. He was so slight and delicate that he made Katherine think of a runner bean or a stick insect. She was simultaneously relieved and wary, scared and pleased. The girls dragged their luggage and themselves into the room, where blue mosquitoe nets and a couple of beds awaited them. Katja instantly slipped into bed and said in a very tired voice, croaking with sleep’s heavines, ‘You saved us. You were so strong, I never realised that you could be so strong.’
‘I didn’t save us, I almost got us killed. We would have been better off staying in our room. As it was I almost got us executed. I fucked up big time.’
‘No, you didn’t. You got us out of there. I wanted to leave, we couldn’t have stayed. It would have been insane to stay. Don’t feel bad, you did the right thing.’
‘We could have avoided that second disaster if we’d stayed put.’
‘If we had stayed put we would both have been terrified and they might have come for us and the other guests. This way we got away and we can have some breathing space. I think we better try and catch the next flight home.’
‘You want to leave?’
‘Not really. Don’t think so. Wait a minute while I look over this place.’
Katherine surveyed the bungalow and checked all the windows and locks and made sure they all fastened tightly. She splashed cold water all over her face and urinated for an eternity and noticed that her heart was beating very rapidly. She peeered at herself in the cracked mirror and had the impression that the night had aged her by years.
‘Don’t you think it was strange, the way that second man intervened. I really thought it was the end,’ she said on her return.
‘So did I.’
‘How do you explain it? Divine intervention? Guardian angel? Why were we spared?’
‘I don’t know. I’m too tired to understand. Too tired to speak. Just glad that we both … that we’re both still alive. That you’re with me.’
‘Who were those guys? What did they want? What was wrong with them?’
‘Katherine, let’s talk about it in the morning. Let’s sleep now.’
‘They must have been the local mafioisi. They … oh God, it was awful … so awful.’ Her eyes welled up with tears and she turned away, so that Katja couldn’t see her. For the first time that evening she had allowed herself to be weak, to let go. She pulled out her cigarettes and smoked feverishly for a minute or two. Then she carried out another rigorous check of the bungalow and the windows and the door and the locks and watched Katja tenderly; she was already in a deep sleep.
Fear rose up like a dark coil and it didn’t loosen but held Katherine in a tight clasp as she climbed into bed, wishing the night would pass quickly; but she knew that it wouldn’t, that a night of insomnia awaited her and that she would meet every creak, rustle, and crack with alarm, tell-tale signs of some potential intruder or murderer. She wouldn’t allow her body to relax and prepared herself mentally for a forthcoming battle, or the siege of their little bungalow and she produced a Swiss knife from her rucksack and placed it on the bedside table, next to her mobile phone, which she was zealously re-charging to form part of her survival kit. Communications, weapons, stonghold. It was all here and she had to oversee it all as her sister slept. The night’s images were replayed ever and again, its horror and relief, its unremitting intensity.
Strange, there I was thinking of life and death, there I went again, trying to open the lid on the big black steaming soup of the unknowable, simmering away like an old witch’s brew and then it seems to come open a bit and the answers, the broth, the brew, it’s pouring out and it doesn’t taste so bad and it isn’t so black and then some fucker comes along and kicks it over and there’s no time to do anything to sweep it up or mop it up or put the lid back on or anything and so it just spills everywhere and evaporates and that’s the end of that and we’ll never know what it was, we’ll never know what it meant, just a great big bowl of nothing. So those fucks who almost killed us down gunned us down in cold blood who are they what are they are they just animals? No because animals are better that they are and animals are better than they are. They – I guess they are just accidents, abortions that are alive. Abortions that are alive. They should have been given a cyanide pill but someone forgot to, it slipped someone’s mind, so they went out into the big bad world and made it badder and smaller and made the badness concentrated in a small place and they gnash their teeth and make pain their credo and they have no heart or soul and not only do they have no heart or soul but they donot even know about the existence of a heart or soul and if you tried to explain the existence of a heart or soul to them they wouldn’t understand it if you explained for fourteen million years they wouldn’t understand. So do they, does their presence confirm that the univserse is this harsh dead cold landscape no law no karma no nothing are we pieces of cosmic seweed floating through the cold cosmos? Or does our presence have sense are we connected to the stars the expoding supernovae. Yes I know the physicists, and Mysteries of the Cosmos (stupid title), tell us we come from the stars and that the stars are in us but what does that mean what comfort is that to the dying man at Jetwing or to the raped woman at Jetwing. Why doesn’t the universe help us? Why doesn’t it intervene and flex some muscles? Why doesn’t God get off his divine backside and stop bad things happening all the time? And why were we spared? Were we just lucky? And is luck really just the co-incidence of two or three things coming together to create a favourable outcome for the person who is then deemed to be lucky? Or does luck have its roots in something else? Something existentially meaningful? And will Kat and I now both be traumatised for the rest of our lives and how can we shake off this shadow this sickness and even though the fifteen minutes after we escaped were the most alive of my life can I now enjoy the simple things like I used to without always looking around and watching my back like I am watching my back now and have I lost something tonight lost it for good and can never get it back? We are this marvellous synthesis but not a synthesis of design, a synthesis of accident and in order to know who created us we only have to look up and watch the stars with our big telescopes but that is all and we are like furniture that dust clings to that dust clings to and information clings to us and we alter and change and evolve and the very fact of our existence is the explanation for our existence so we exist because we exist and existence has begot existence and the stars that are born the billions upon billions of stars that are uncountable and are more innumerable than all the words ever spoken by all human beings who ever lived like the man says — what was his name Neil d’Erbe Myson, bizarre but cool name — those stars are the fabric of my being the make up of my texture my matter my form and mere existence has created all that we see because all that we see is the cosmic dust emerging around us just as the dust emerges on a piece of furniture if you leave it long enough and intelligence and thought and self-awareness are the dust but we like to think that with mere dust we can civilise the world and man and people but dust is dust after all and we are dust after all and where is the dialogue between us and space, us and god and us and the cosmos and where is the link? Where is the transmisssion, the receiver? Where is the bridge? The cosmic cable?
In the end she fell into a fitful sleep, waking suddenly, twitching and reaching over for the knife, peering dimly around in sickly moments of wakefulness, clutching the pillow, rising to shine a torch into the darkness outside. The windows had not been interfered with. The door was tightly shut and barred. She looked at Katja sleeping in a gentle cocoon and an infinite tenderness welled up and touched her. She climbed back into bed and gradually the demons of the night came to rest and some kind of stillness was born and she slept, for an hour or two. The little bungalow was like a lonely shuttle on a journey through space, flitting in and out of dimensions that had no beginning or end, no boundaries and the cosmos fluttered wildly around this fragile centre in a primeval swirl whose tumult became super attenuated into pure form, pure elegance and the distilled light of day prised open the corners and angles of the room and the shadows diminished and faded and fled altogether.
Neither intruders nor murderers had come. The morning light was their talisman.
They ventured out and took a walk along a savagely beautiful stretch of beach that was now unveiled, its savagery and beauty hitherto cloaked by night. It was as though they had been standing next to diamonds that, concealed in the dark, they had taken for ashes. Their exodus into the morning and the unexpected beauty of their surroundings was a return to childhood or a further affirmation of life’s alchemical mysteries and they just wandered along the beach with no particular aim or expectation, merely floating with this new found sense of gratitude and lightness. The fishermen were already out on their boats. A line of seven or eight slow moving catamarans, their sails distended like pregnant bellies in the wind, formed an elegant arc along the horizon.
‘How are you feeling? Katja? Could you sleep?’
‘Of course, I slept like a log.’
‘You weren’t scared?’
‘I think I was too exhausted to be scared.’
‘I didn’t sleep a wink. Or maybe I did. It’s good to be crashing up against the tides. I feel … I don’t know, what a night.’
‘Let’s not talk about it. Let’s put it behind us. The important thing is that we’re alive.’
Katherine nodded and looked earnestly into her sister’s eyes. The day was starting to harden and take form, its percolating uncertainties on the point of evaporation. Katherine stared hard at the water and the still rising sun reflected brilliantly in her eyes and a light flashed and danced within them. Katja also looked out to sea and for a moment their faces attained an uncanny similarity, almost as if both their juxtaposed profiles were two marginally different images of the same person. The water was glowing with sun speckled irridescence, the wind tore through everything and at its touch all was revivified and stirred with dazzling life. As Katherine stared into that immensity, she no longer searched for the long dreaded return of the tsunami, the tell-tale signs of an awful re-visiting.
Katja spoke in a very soft and even voice.
‘You know … I was thinking … maybe we were spared for a reason after all. Maybe it wasn’t just an accident. Maybe there was something behind it. Maybe we have something that we have to do. I don’t know what. But I’ve learnt something. I think. To be less demanding, to be more grateful. To try and be alive, not to take it for granted. Life. To really try and reach out and grasp it.’
‘That’s amazing. Diamond-brilliant. So you’re cured?’
‘Of fear? Of unhappiness?’
‘I don’t know about that… I’m not cured. I’m just… I’m able to see maybe. Maybe I’ve been sleepwalking all this time. And now I’ve woken up at last.’
‘That’s amazing. Do you feel happy?’
She said nothing for a very long time and then turned slowly to face her sister.
‘Maybe … maybe to be alive … is to be happy.’
Katherine stared at her in amazement, as though stunned by this idea. She had never imagined that such a kind of change could have been wrought in her sister, literally overnight.
‘Let’s not waste any more time Katherine. Let’s just live. Ok? Promise?’
‘But what does that mean?’
‘It means … to start with … let’s go back and get some Sri Lankan breakfast and some coffee and some papayas. Coming?’
‘Just give me a few moments. I need to digest. Take it all in. Wow, you’re like a different person. I … you’re so focused. You’re like a laser beam. I feel … I feel like a screwdriver.’
‘Don’t be silly. You’re totally and utterly amazing. You’re diamond-brilliant. You’re even laser-brilliant. Don’t be long or I’ll start to worry about you.’
Katja began to walk back to the bungalow and Katherine watched her lazy, nonchalant saunter along the hot sand. She watched her until she vanished inside their little bungalow, which seemed then like some kind of sanctuary or shrine. Maybe within, she fondly imagined, a hidden Buddha lay sleeping, arriving at the end of his great, titanic journey, finally having managed to conquer desire, to still the raging currents of human suffering, to solve the enigma of the world. Did he hover, like some displaced spirit, over the world, from time to time introducing some secret antidote, some benign alkaline to neutralise the acid, to still the pain. She looked out to sea, ever and again searching for the affirmation of her conjectures. She watched the configurations of clouds, their gossamer complexity drifting back to nothingness, a place unmarked on any map or chart. She stared hard into the heavens, and its corrugated, ethereal textures.
If it’s true that we came from you, if it’s true that the atoms that comprise life, comprise us, people, are also the same as the atoms that make up the stars, that made up the stars…. as that darn book I’m reading keeps saying. If that’s true the blueprint of the universe is in me, I am the blueprint, my atoms came from those stars, I am connected and so I have nothing to fear, in a sense. In a sense.
She stared harder than she had ever stared at anything in her own life, intuiting something, seeing something, maybe it was a shadow, a silhouette flickering on a cave, or maybe it was her mirror, or maybe it was a blessing or a voice or a calling or a love. She began to discern — her mind moving slowly but with ever growing confidence through a landscape of ciphers and enigmas that were no longer ciphers or enigmas but transparencies, simplicities, her mind moving through that space with no name — that if creation could design such a staggeringly complex world, could dream up and execute such infinite complexity and hold it all in such miraculous, perfectly functioning equilibrium should not such a force also be able to untie the infinitissemal – by contrast – knots in her own life, unravel the tiny entanglements of her own existence? If creation, existence, consciousness, nature, the elements, the mind of God, the cosmos, energy, call it what you will, had programmed itself into being and had then co-ordinated all the factors that allowed life to come into being and to be sustained, then did it not make sense to believe that that very same force could also dip in and out of the quagmires of our own lives and nightmares, could move a healing hand through the chaos, the pain, the problems, the traumas? In that ultimate glimpse of the ever changing clouds, the ever changing sea she saw finally that there lay there the raw materials of her own salvation, her connectedness to the world, to the cosmos. It was no longer the Buddhist driver, the wedding party, the little girl in the temple that bound her to life. It was no longer the murderers, the guns, the violence that bound her to death. A strange kind of fortification seeped into her brain and she perceived in a grateful moment that she had been snatched perhaps from a life of perpetual questioning and wandering, there on that beach, on that alighting point that the night had caterpaulted them onto, two women, stumbling, uncertain, but touched by beauty and, finally, grace.